Watson began his photographic career with a university course – a Bachelor in Applied Science and Photography – and in his own words, he “should have ended up tucked away in a CSI lab taking forensic images…” but fate had another plan for him… Back in the nineties, photographic courses were very different to today’s incarnation. The self confessed science nerd (“I wasn’t very arty – in high school I was a straight physics, chem, maths student”) found his course encompassed everything from the ins and outs of photographic processing to forensic photography – he even shared classes with med students… “You could be taking photos one day and dissecting pigs in the lab on another…”
Nonetheless at the end of three years of study, Watson found his enthusiasm for his craft was on the wane. “After three years studying science and photography, I really was ready to put the camera down,” muses Watson, “which is probably what led me to sports photography… I ended up taking a breather and hitching up the east coast of Australia.” It was whilst taking this ‘breather’ that he received a fateful phone call… “I was in Brisbane when I got a call from Lindsay Cupper,” he recalls. “At the time he was one of the cinematographers for David Attenborough’s BBC wildlife documentary “The life of Birds” I’d spoken with him when documenting Peregrine falcons for my final year project. “He called me up and said ‘I need someone to come up to the Mary River outside Kakadu and be my assistant’.So I jumped on a bus for nearly two days, then flew to Mildura and drove from there – and started working for him. I think that’s what reignited my passion for photography. There I was on a houseboat in the Mary River surrounded by salt water crocodiles… and I started to get back into shooting things and after that I went and worked up the snow and started photographing snowboarders and through that, moved into working with other sports like mountain biking and ended up travelling the world photographing adventure sports. “Now I have the best job in the world… though don’t tell anyone…” he laughs.
Sounds like Watson couldn’t be more chuffed, especially when it comes to travelling the world shooting and partaking in adventures… As a child, Watson spent many a summer vacationing with his family, “a 110mm plastic camera” in hand, as they answered the call of the wild, on camping trips to the likes of Lake Eyre or Broken Hill or Fraser Island… Little wonder this love for the great outdoors soon found its way into Watson’s work as an adult. To date Watson has travelled everywhere from Rio to The Kimberleys and encountered some unique shooting situations along the way. One of his most challenging shoots to date was for Red Bull’s ‘glorious days’ project. Watson has had a close association with the energy drink company for many years, photographing many of the Red Bull sponsored extreme sport events – but this assignment was unlike any other in his career. Tasked with the charge of capturing the natural phenomenon known as the ‘Morning Glory’, Watson spent months preparing for the shoot.
“They call it the tsunami of the sky,” says Watson “and it was probably one of the most challenging and exhilarating shooting experiences. “It was a very memorable assignment and one I had a hand in from the start. I’d been interested
in shooting this phenomenon for a while. So I spoke with the hang-glider (Jon Durand) about it and we went up and did a reconnaissance before, to see if it was possible or not. “And you see the end footage (check out morning glory on YouTube) and you think it’s just the result of a bit of luck – you don’t realise how much effort went into it beforehand in terms of dollars and time, to see if it was feasible…” Watson explains: “The previous year we spent two weeks sitting on those salt flats in the desert starring at the sky and no morning glory came along except a small one on the last day which I was able to get on from a Trike – which is a motorised hang-glider – but the athlete wasn’t able to. So that raised questions on that reconnaissance trip as to whether we should even try to do it – whether it was justifiable to spend money on developing camera systems and helicopter mounts for two weeks in the desert where we might come back with nothing…”
Fortunately Watson and co. jumped in and took a risk on the project and was rewarded with some spectacular footage. Footage that couldn’t have been achieved without research and preparation. “In my role I do have to do a little more research than some other fields of photography. Number one, because I do shoot a number of different adventure sports so I need to understand the sport to document what it’s about. “Also I tend to end up in weird and wonderful
parts of the world that present unusual photographic challenges. For instance how do you photograph hang-gliding? You don’t sit on the ground with a 600mm lens – you’d just end up with a dot. And how do you photograph not just a hang-glider but this natural phenomenon? A 1000km long cloud, moving at 80km an hour. So I need to sit down and go ‘here’s the challenge – how do we get out of it? That’s what I love – whether it’s working out how to shoot canyoning or hang-gliding or rappelling down waterfalls… What housings do you take? What do you sacrifice? What becomes most important when it comes to the challenge of getting the photograph? I think a lot of my job is problem solving – pressing the button is easy.”
As a Nikon Ambassador, Watson is fortunate enough to be able to call on Nikon’s expertise, whether it is in borrowing the latest lenses, testing new cameras or even assisting when it comes to developing new equipment. “I’ve been fortunate to be nominated as one of their Ambassadors which means I can go to them and say – I have this crazy project – can you help? So if I want to put a still camera on a hang- glider but want to shoot video as well – well, in that case we redesigned one of their cameras…” Sometimes, Watson says, you just have to be willing to take the risk – to put your equipment to the test to be able to get the money shot… “I got a great photo of Robbie Maddison, the motocross rider. I wanted to get a feel for what it was like to be 70ft in the air on a motorbike so I gaffed the camera to his handlebars and he took the jump and we got the shot… Sometimes you have to put your gear on the line to get the shot – sometimes you get the shot and sometimes you don’t and sometimes it’s about a little bit of luck…”